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The Designer's Notebook: Where's Our Merchant Ivory?
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The Designer's Notebook: Where's Our Merchant Ivory?

August 7, 2006 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

The struggle for public respect goes on. As soon as the Entertainment Software Association knocks down one clown-made unconstitutional ordinance designed to censor video games, another one pops up somewhere else. It’s Whack-A-Mole with lawsuits.

Video games are an easy target because, unlike the movies, games have no powerful friends and no beautiful film stars to argue for them. But there are many other reasons for our lack of cultural credibility as well. Some of them aren’t our fault, but a surprising number are, and recently I’ve thought of another one: We don’t have any highbrow games.

Almost every other entertainment medium has an élite form. Books have serious literature, the kind that wins Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. Music has classical music—not just popular favorites like Beethoven and Mozart, but other forms that are less familiar and less easy to love: twelve-tone music and grand opera. Dance? Ballet, obviously. TV, the most relentlessly proletarian medium of them all, still manages to devote a handful of channels to science, history, and the arts. (Science, history, and the arts aren’t really highbrow, but programming executives certainly think they are.)

And movies? Movies have Merchant Ivory, a small and very unusual production company. For over 40 years, Ismail Merchant (now deceased, alas), James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala made a string of incredibly beautiful and well-acted movies on subjects that would never be big hits at the shopping mall cineplex. These weren’t “art films,” short low-budget titles filled with impenetrable weirdness; they were rich, thoughtful works that addressed serious issues.

Big Hollywood stars lined up to appear in Merchant Ivory films even though the stars didn’t stand a hope in hell of making the kind of money they were used to, because it was worth it just for the prestige value alone. The same is true of Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare films. Take a look at the his Hamlet; the credits read like a Who’s Who of Tinseltown. Half the cast could easily get a leading role in a moneymaker, yet they signed up for bit parts in Hamlet just for the chance to say they did it.

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